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Who'd have expected it? A feast of intellectual entertainment right in the middle of an artistic desert: the summer blockbuster season. But here it is, the film that is based on and which grew out of the late Carl Sagan's long interest in the possibility of and search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The suspenseful plot follows Dr. Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer played by Jodie Foster, who receives meaningful signals from a solar system twenty-six light-years away. Though the discovery vindicates her years of dedication to a project in which few had confidence, she finds she must now battle those, including the military, who would take over her work. Foster's character is a sort of stand-in for Sagan (even down to a similar turtleneck and jacket in one scene), and Foster reports that her portrayal was directly inspired by meeting him. Not only did she become captivated by Sagan's contageous enthusiasm for science, she personally resonated with his agnosticism.

And agnosticism, it turns out, is a major feature of the plot. Arroway forth-rightly argues her nontheistic views and, because she later refuses to disavow them under pressure, becomes a victim of religious prejudice. This makes Contact a highly unusual film for Hollywood -- one that offers a sympathetic portrait of an outspoken humanist, presenting her in a context that reveals the type of bias humanists frequently encounter.

Though never boring, not even to preteens, much of the action is talk: talk about science, politics, politics in science, science in politics, and both sophisticated and simplistic religion. But cleverly left unspoken -- and thus all the more clear to the audience -- is unconscious prejudice against women.

If this doesn't sound like a typical high-profile movie about encounters with extraterrestrials, it's because it isn't. High profile, yes. With deadly space monsters, no. Instead, Contact is a gripping adventure into theology, epistemology, pure science, politics, greed, fanaticism, and romance. Better than the novel, it leaves its audience (including individuals normally not so inclined) pondering some of the great philosophical questions of life, society, and the cosmos.

This is the last book by the eminent scientist, science popularizer, and 1981 Humanist of the Year, who died in December 1996.

In this varied collection of clear-headed essays, Sagan addresses the challenges of space exploration, environmental degradation, global warming, ozone layer depletion, overpopulation, and war and peace. Included are his appeal to religious leaders to join with scientists to save the environment and his April 1990 Parade magazine article on abortion rights -- one of the best defenses of reproductive choice ever published. The book winds up with Sagan's account of his ultimately unsuccessful struggle against myelodisplasia, a type of cancer, and his wife Ann Druyan's touching epilogue.

An exemplary tribute to the breadth of Sagan's humanism, Billions and Billions is not to be missed.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Edwords, Frederick
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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